COVID-19: People working from home in UK more than doubled as pandemic struck – but at what cost?

The proportion of people working from home (WFH) more than doubled last year as coronavirus crisis rules tore through UK workplaces, according to official figures.

The data, compiled from a survey by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), showed 25.9% – or 8.4 million people – were completing duties from their place of residence at some point in the week they were spoken to.

The figure compares with 12.4% in 2019.

That was a time when COVID-19 was yet to emerge in Europe though the ramifications of the public health emergency have since sparked fierce debate over the future of the workplace.

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Those who were placed on furlough last year – almost nine million during April and May as lockdowns forced large parts of the economy into hibernation – were not included in the survey.

That was because they were not able to work under eligibility rules for the Job Retention Scheme.

The report detailed that the groups with the highest rates of homeworking last year were "women, those working in information and communication, those residing in or working in London and those in professional occupations".

The data showed that 46.4% of people employed in London said they worked at home at some point in 2020.

Richmond-upon-Thames recorded the highest proportion, at 70.7%, with only 13.7% of workers in Middlesbrough WFH.

South Ayrshire came in with the lowest proportion at 9.1%.

The ONS said those working in the accommodation and food service sector were among the least likely to home work, with just 11.4% of people saying they had worked at home.

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While the easing of coronavirus restrictions in recent weeks has allowed more people back to offices, aided by children returning to school, many employers have been reluctant to add costs at a critical time for balance sheets and see WFH as an opportunity for savings.

While the government is keen for people to cautiously return to workplaces to aid the recovery for businesses in town and city centres, major banking groups have led the way in closing office space as WFH procedures become more established.

It is clear that so-called hybrid working is now on the up – mixing WFH and time in the office – allowing staff greater flexibility on how they manage their time, in many cases, and further savings from commuting every day.

But Sarah Loates, founder of Loates HR Consultancy, warned that the trend was not always in the best interests of employees.

She said in response of the ONS data: "While finance directors are rubbing their hands with glee at the cost savings from dispensing with expensive serviced offices, hybrid working comes at a price, both social and economic.

"Socially, hybrid working poses the inadvertent creation of ‘donut’ city centres, where businesses migrate to the fringes of cities as vast swathes of the workforce work from home.

"SMEs [small/medium-sized enterprises] reliant on commuter city centre footfall may therefore emerge as economic casualties of hybrid working.

"At a business level, the hidden costs of hybrid working are yet to reveal themselves, such as IT support, reputational damage linked to data breaches and employee relations.

"During lockdown we saw a spike in employees raising grievances, as managers wrestled with managing remotely.

"With hybrid working set to become the enfant terrible of employee engagement, how companies balance the business case of this fundamental shift in working remains to be seen."

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